U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said late Thursday forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi have been pushed back by the five-day coalition air campaign but remain a threat to civilians. Clinton welcomed the NATO agreement to assume responsibility for enforcing the no-fly zone.
Clinton, responding to the NATO decision in Brussels, claimed significant progress in the air campaign led thus far by U.S. forces.
But she sounded a note of caution, saying that while forces loyal to Mr. Gadhafi have been pushed back from the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and elsewhere, they remain a "serious threat" to the safety of the Libyan people.
"In the days ahead, as NATO assumes command and control responsibilities, the welfare of those civilians will be of paramount concern. This operation has already saved many lives but the danger is far from over. As long as the Gadhafi regime threatens its people and defies the United Nations, we must remain vigilant and focused," she said.
Clinton said Arab leadership and participation in the coalition is "crucial", and welcomed the announcement that the United Arab Emirates will deploy 12 aircraft to no-fly-zone enforcement, joining Qatar as the second Arab contributor.
She confirmed she will attend next Tuesday’s British-organized ministerial meeting of coalition countries in London aimed at fleshing out the deal in Brussels under which NATO will assume command and control responsibility from the United States.
The Obama administration has stressed its desire to step back into a supporting role after taking the lead in initial attacks.
Clinton said those aircraft and cruise missile strikes have rendered Mr. Gadhafi’s air force and air defenses "largely ineffective" and put the coalition in control of the skies over Libya. "Our mission has been to use America’s unique capability to create the conditions for the no-fly zone and assist in meeting urgent humanitarian needs. And as expected, we’re already seeing a significant reduction in the number of U.S. planes involved in the operations, as the number of planes from other countries increase in numbers," she said.
Clinton was involved in telephone diplomacy to clear the way for the NATO deal, including a four-way conference call with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Turkey.
Turkey, NATO’s largest Muslim member country, insisted on strict curbs on NATO air operations to assure minimal casualties among fellow-Muslim Libyan civilians.
The White House, meanwhile, was defending the administration’s handling of the Libya crisis amid charges from Congressional Republicans and some Democrats that consultation on U.S. military action was inadequate.
Some legislators have said the administration should have sought authorization for the Libya operation under the 1973 War Powers Act, but White House spokesman Jay Carney said enforcement of the U.N. Security Council resolution cannot be considered as a war. "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners, with the objective of protecting civilian lives in Libya from Muammar Gadhafi's forces," he said.
Carney likened the Libya operation to the 1999 NATO air campaign in Kosovo, which also involved a no-fly zone and which began without prior Congressional action.